Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Hygiene Hijinx




You know you've been in India for a while when you can tell the difference between a one day and a two day old dead rat.

We do the 700 meter walk up Ponoth Road to the main strip, KK Road maybe two or three times a day. Invariably, we see at least one new rodent that has paid the ultimate price for getting a little sloppy about defence. If we spy a fresh one on the way up to the market, the crows have invariably made a substantial dent in the carcass by the time we walk back to the house. After a while, it's inevitable that an auto-rickshaw, car, or motorcycle has also left a tire tread or two on it. Finally, these flattened half-dried rodents appear to be the favourite chew-toy of the many wild (at least I think they are) dogs that roam the neighbourhood. We're getting to be experts in rodent road-kill. So now when we spot one on our walk, our little game is to guess its age. "That's a two hour rat". "That's a one day rat". "That's an 8 hour rat". It's important to note that in an ecosystem this unforgiving, there no such thing as a four day rat.

Last time we were in India, we stayed in a hotel in Amritsar called "Hotel Samrat". There was a battered wooden sandwich board sign on the sidewalk, which, in crudely painted letters, proudly touted the hotel as being "Nearly as good as a three star hotel". Whenever we checked into another dodgy backpacker's hotel, our running joke for the rest of the trip was "Samrat. Not many".

It is not surprising, given the hygienic challenges being faced on a day to day basis, that sooner or later one of us was going to get crabs. Tenacious crabs. Small, feisty, and incredibly sweet and delicious crabs.

We made our daily trip to the market yesterday, and just after we had picked out a nice fish for a curry, we were approached by a couple toting a big bucket. In this bucket were a dozen or so little crabs, bigger than the blue-tinged ones we see by the basketful in Chinatown, but smaller than our old friend the Dungeness. Each one was bundled up in a little length of very coarse jute twine to harness the claws and stop them from fleeing. They were moving around pretty well, so freshness was a given. I bought 7 or 8 of them, and it came to a whopping 100 rupees, or about $2.50. There is a great dish here in Kerala that is done with shrimp or crab, and it's called "shrimp fry" or "crab fry". It's very simple and quick, and incredibly tasty. It makes good use of the black pepper that grows here so abundantly, and there's puhlenty of garlic to boot!. This is the kind of dish that you can screw up and it will still taste pretty good. The coconut is optional, but if you can include it, you'll be greatly rewarded, as it acts like a sponge for garlic! I'll do my best to pass on the recipe here:

1 Dungeness crab, about 1.5 pounds
3 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter)
3 big shallots, sliced thinly
12 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
2 fresh green chilis, cut into thirds
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
3 tablespoons of fresh ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
1/2 teaspoon chili powder (cayenne)
10 or 12 curry leaves.
8 or ten strips of fresh coconut, cut no more than 1/8 inch thick (optional)
2 roma tomatoes, cut into 6 or 8 wedges each
kosher salt to taste

Boil the crab for 7-10 minutes in very well salted water. Sea water is best, or try to achieve that degree of salinity. Let the crab cool a bit
Carefully remove the main shell, being careful to keep as much of the contents of the head as possible. Place upside down and reserve.
From the now-exposed body, remove the grayish rows of gills, also called "dead mans fingers", and discard.
Remove claws
Cut the body in half down the middle, and using a sharp heavy knife, cut each leg off, leaving a section of body attached.
Heat the ghee in a large wok, and when hot, add the mustard seeds.
When they start to pop, add the curry leaves, and then shallots. Cook until the shallots start to brown and crisp up a bit. Don't blacken them! This makes a bitter and terrible taste.
Add the garlic, turmeric, black pepper, coconut, and fresh and powdered chili. Stir for a moment to combine
Add the crab, including the contents of the head, and fry for a few minutes, stirring constantly to coat with the spice.
Add salt to taste
When it starts to dry a little, add the tomato and stir fry for one more minute.

Turn onto a serving dish, and garnish with fresh cilantro

You can get fresh curry leaves at a lot of the Indian groceries on Main St in Vancouver, or at our favourite one stop shop, Asia Market on Hastings St, one block east of Main. I often buy live crab at the seafood store near the corner of Keefer and Gore, which is only a short walk from Asia Market. I apologize for not being able to give specific directions to outlets in other cities. However, there is this great new web site, called "Google". I'm not sure if it will catch on, though.

We're definitely having fun now. Filming opportunities are starting to pop out of the woodwork. Everyone is healthy. People are starting to recognize us in the neighbourhood and wave or smile. We feel so lucky to have landed where we have. Today, Laurel and I are going out shopping for appropriate clothing to wear to a Hindu wedding in Kannur on the 13th. We have been given permission to film the food preparation that will feed 500+ guests! That should be interesting, to say the least. This will be our first Hindu wedding in almost 9 years. The last one we attended was ours!

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